Cut from the same financial-panic cloth as Fun With Dick and Jane (1977) and 9 to 5 (1980), this adequate comedy depicts the extreme measures that three suburban women take in order to keep up with inflation even as their respective incomes fluctuate. Competently made and filled with strong actors, the piece ambles its way through uninspired episodes punctuated with weak jokes. Every actor in the cast has done better work elsewhere, and with all due respect to her terrific work on the small screen, How to Beat the High Co$t of Living quickly proved that Saturday Night Live alumna Jane Curtin was not destined to be a movie star. She’s droll and sexy in what amounts to the film’s leading role, but her costars—Jessica Lange and Susan Saint James—eclipse her in terms of glamour and pithiness, respectively. It says a lot about the picture that the most dynamic performances actually come from two supporting players, Richard Benjamin and Dabney Coleman.
Cowritten and coproduced by Robert Kaufman, the movie takes a mosaic approach to explaining why three female friends end up in the same desperate situation at the same time. After Elaine (Curtin) is dumped by her husband, she’s left in a financial lurch because of her extravagant lifestyle. Meanwhile, divorcée Jane (Saint James) tries in vain to cover expenses for herself, her kids, and her aging father (Eddie Albert). And Louise (Lange) fares so poorly operating an antique store that her husband, a veterinarian named Albert (Benjamin), sues her in order to compel her into personal bankruptcy. Together, the women hatch a scheme to rob a “money ball” that’s on display in a local shopping center, so predictable shenanigans result from amateurs attempting a heist.
Most of what happens in How to Beat the High Cost of Living is mildly amusing at best. Worse, the movie’s would-be sexy subplot—Elaine’s various encounters with a horny cop named Jack (Coleman)—culminate in a tacky scene of Elaine performing a striptease in the middle of the shopping center. Yes, the sexual politics of How to Beat the Cost of Living are so creaky that one of the film’s heroines saves the day by flashing her breasts. Curtin does well in edgy scenes but lacks warmth, Lange looks gorgeous but seems bored with the trite material, and Saint James fares best of the three by playing light comedy well. Unfortunately, the three women never quite gel into a cohesive unit.
How to Beat the High Co$t of Living: FUNKY